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Which state has the most child marriages?

Child marriage, defined as marriage before the age of 18, remains a major problem in the United States. Though 18 is the minimum age for marriage in most states, every state allows exceptions with parental consent or judicial approval. This has led to thousands of minors getting married, often to much older adults. So which state has seen the highest rates of child marriage?

What are the laws around child marriage in the US?

There is no minimum age for marriage set in federal law. Each state establishes its own marriage laws, and most set 18 as the minimum age to marry. However, exceptions are allowed in every state, most often with parental consent and/or court approval. Some states do not even specify an age below which parental and/or court consent is required.

In recent years, several states have enacted legislation to limit these exceptions. But as of 2022, only 5 states had banned marriage before age 18 without exception: Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Even with new laws, loopholes and lack of enforcement have allowed many underage marriages to continue in some states.

Why does child marriage remain so common?

An estimated 248,000 children under 18 were married in the US between 2000-2018, with the vast majority being girls married to adult men. Several factors drive these child marriages:

  • Cultural or religious traditions of early marriage in some communities
  • Parents wanting to avoid a child’s “sinful” behavior like premarital sex or pregnancy
  • A lack of better options, like access to reproductive healthcare and sex education

Poverty and lack of educational and economic opportunities also make early marriage more likely for some girls. Predatory adult men exploit minors’ vulnerability. Lax marriage laws and limited enforcement enable these marriages to happen despite the harm to children.

What are the consequences of child marriage?

Marrying as a child has lifelong negative consequences that disproportionately affect girls:

  • Interrupted education and limited future socioeconomic opportunities
  • Higher risk of domestic violence and marital rape
  • Early and frequent pregnancies with health complications
  • Increased risk of sexually transmitted infections
  • Higher rates of mental health issues like depression
  • Greater likelihood of living in poverty as an adult

Children lack the physical and emotional maturity to enter a healthy marital relationship. The power imbalance with a significantly older spouse also facilitates abuse. Ending child marriage would give these minors a chance at education, economic prosperity, and avoiding unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

Which states have the highest rates of child marriage?

According to data compiled by Unchained At Last, an organization seeking to ban child marriage, these 10 states have seen the highest rates of minor marriage from 2000-2018:

State Child marriages 2000-2018
Tennessee 10,439
Texas 8,308
Florida 8,306
Oklahoma 6,174
Kentucky 5,263
Idaho 5,249
Alabama 5,195
Missouri 4,071
Mississippi 3,909
Arkansas 3,727

Tennessee, Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma alone accounted for over 30,000 child marriages. However, these raw numbers do not account for differences in state population. To better compare, we can look at child marriage rates per 1,000 for some sample states:

State Child marriages per 1,000 people
West Virginia 0.98
Alaska 0.95
Oklahoma 0.78
Arkansas 0.63
Tennessee 0.76
Texas 0.15
California 0.04

By this measure, sparsely populated states like West Virginia and Alaska rise to the top. Analysis of marriage license data shows these states issue marriage licenses to minors at rates far higher than their populations alone predict. However, states like California still see thousands of minor marriages due to their sheer size.

Key factors driving state differences in child marriage rates

What explains the wide variation across states? Key factors include:

  • State laws: States with more restrictions see lower rates. California limits marriage before 18 to minors emancipated from their parents by court order.
  • Poverty: Poorer states like West Virginia correlate with more child marriages. Lack of opportunity drives early marriages.
  • Rurality: Sparsely populated states see higher rates. More traditional views and lack of other options play a role.
  • Religion: Conservative religious beliefs encourage early marriages in Bible Belt states.
  • Cultural diversity: States with more recent immigrants have additional cultural drivers of early marriage.

Importantly, even states with partial legal bans still see thousands of child marriages if exceptions remain. More stringent laws and enforcement are needed to end child marriage.

How can we end child marriage in America?

Advocates against child marriage generally recommend:

  • Setting strict minimum marriage ages of 16 or 18 with no exceptions
  • Increasing enforcement and penalties against those who enable illegal underage marriages
  • Public education campaigns to highlight the harms of child marriage
  • Programs to increase educational and economic opportunities for at-risk girls
  • Comprehensive sex education and family planning access

A federal minimum age requirement has also been proposed, though state jurisdiction over marriage may require a constitutional amendment. Many lawmakers and religious leaders still resist tighter laws, making change slow. But organizations like Unchained at Last and legislators promoting reform in recent years provide hope that child marriage will eventually be abolished.


Though 18 is the most common legal age, every state still allows exceptions to child marriage. Sparsely populated states like West Virginia and Alaska see the highest rates of minor marriage per capita. But larger states without strong limits, like Tennessee, Texas, and Florida, see the highest absolute numbers. Loopholes from limited laws, poor enforcement, poverty, religious conservatism, and lack of education contribute to higher child marriage rates. To protect children from exploitation and lifelong harms, stricter laws and cultural change are still needed.